Recently I rewatched Back to the Future, the 1985 pop classic with Michael J. Fox traveling back in time to 1955 to be an impeccably handsome fish out of water who gets his parents (back) together. I was eleven years old when it came out, although I probably didn’t see it until it came to cable sometime in 1986. I have seen it any number of times since then, but I hadn’t seen it in at least the last ten years. I certainly hadn’t seen it since becoming a parent. I am now nearer in age to 1985 George McFly than I am to teenage Marty McFly, and the 2015 in which I live is as far from the present of Back to the Future as 1955 was from the film’s original viewers. Much has changed since I last saw this movie.
Yet the movie holds up well. Remarkably well, in fact. I was surprised at just how emotionally invested I was in it, even though I remembered what happened. I can’t say the same thing for the sequels, though. Not only can I barely remember what happened in those, other than that the second one has an evil corporation called BiffCo and the third one has a flying, time-traveling train in it. I started re-watching Back to the Future Part II shortly after Back to the Future and didn’t finish. It was, in the present vernacular, a hot mess. That movie has resurfaced in the popular memory due to the fact that tomorrow, October 21, 2015, is the day on which Marty McFly lands in his journey to the future. In 1989, Robert Zemeckis and company apparently expected 2015 to be the 1980’s with gadgets out of sci-fi serials from the 1950’s—flying cars, hoverboards, and the like. It feels more like an exhibit from a 1980’s World’s Fair than it does an actual movie, despite the fact that the Cubs actually do have a shot at winning the World Series.
As for Back to the Future Part III, it’s a bit less of a mess than Part II, and it takes place in 1885, so it doesn’t provide as much fuel for the Nostalgia-Industrial Complex. It plays like a TV movie with very high production values, though. If it had come first, there wouldn’t have been any sequels.
What is the difference? Why does Back to the Future endure in a way that the sequels don’t? It’s not because there is an iron law that sequels are always worse than the originals, as there are ample sequels which are at least as compelling, if not more so, than the originals that spawned them (The Godfather, Part II; the entire television run of Buffy the Vampire Slayer). There is something that Back to the Future has that it sequels doesn’t. What makes it so good isn’t the souped-up DeLorean or the gags on the paradoxes of time travel. The sequels had those—too much of those. It isn’t even because the 1950’s are somehow funnier than the 1880’s or the 2010’s. It is what it often is in these circumstances: the original tapped into one of the oldest stories there is, in this case the story of dealing with the conflicted legacies left us by our parents.
To see it, you have to strip away all of the extraneous dross to get to the emotional core of the story. Start with peeling away the time travel stuff, which is so shallow as to be nothing more than a plot device. Back to the Future is not a meditation on the paradoxes and promises of time travel. Doc Brown offers a sort of lecture on the so-called Butterfly Effect, but at the end of the movie he flagrantly disregards his own lecture, reading the warning letter 1955 Marty writes to him, and it saves his life. There is also scarcely any attempt to make the movie’s science plausible. The flux capacitor is a complete black box—seriously, it is so sketchy that I think its entire purpose is for us not to ask questions about it—and Doc Brown, its inventor, is portrayed more as a loopy but persistent crackpot than a scientific genius. He thought of the thing after whacking his head on the sink, for goodness’ sake. He probably doesn’t even know how it works. Back to the Future II does more to mine the pitfalls of time travel than the original, and presents us the spectacle of a Doc Brown who actually seems to know what he is doing, all of it to no real benefit.
Along with the time travel business, take away the 1950’s-specific stuff, at least for its own sake. There are plenty of movies that examine 1950’s America from a variety of critical standpoints—Peggy Sue Got Married, American Graffiti, Pleasantville, et cetera—but Back to the Future isn’t one of them. There is a brief hat tip in the direction of the era’s racial prejudice, but mostly the 1950’s are a source of fish-out-of-water jokes and set-ups for plot details back in 1985.
What do we have left when we pare back the superficial story elements and plot devices? We have something like this:
A young man comes to understand how his unhappy, inept parents came to be the way they are, and that they weren’t always like they are now. He also comes to realize that, despite their unhappiness, his own existence is bound up with their chance meeting and falling in love. He helps overcome the flaws that led them to be the people he knows, and in the process redeems them and himself.
Pretty heavy for a popcorn movie, and yet without it I guarantee you no one but 80’s nostalgia enthusiasts would care about it. The movie sets up the dynamic brilliantly at the very beginning: cowardly, milquetoast George McFly, his unsatisfied, alcoholic wife Lorraine, and their underachieving kids. The youngest appears to be Marty himself: good-looking, talented, more or less confident, has a cute but nondescript girlfriend. He could go on to Be Somebody. But he is also beginning to exhibit some of the same fears and hang-ups (in his case, about public performance) that, we soon learn, hamstrung George’s life, too. Marty is ashamed of his parents, and in particular at his father’s spinelessness, yet he is already beginning to hear the ghosts of his parents’ failures in his own words.
Marty has an improbable (and completely unexplained) friendship with Doc Brown, the old crackpot inventor who only seems to have come up with one working invention, and that is the time-traveling DeLorean itself. We don’t know exactly how Doc Brown is able to sustain his crackpot lifestyle—independently wealthy, perhaps, especially since we find out later that 1955 Doc lives in what is basically a mansion. But he is unsuccessful as a scientist and inventor, and appears to have been unsuccessful for a very long time. The time machine is his bid for scientific redemption, and yet his mad scheme for obtaining the plutonium fuel it needs is what costs him his life at the hands of Libyan terrorists. Doc Brown is yet another authority figure surrounding Marty who is a lovable, washed-up failure.
Then the working time machine, a sleek, 88-miles-per-hour MacGuffin, lands Marty in 1955, where Marty’s real work begins. In 1955 Hill Valley he manages to meet, in short order, both of his parents as teenagers, back when they had hopes and dreams and enough spirit to do naughty things like be peeping toms or drink in parked cars with boys. These are both people who we want to believe could Be Somebody Too. Yet Marty has a problem: The teenaged version of his own mother only has eyes for him, and if she doesn’t start looking in George McFly’s direction soon, he will fade out of existence. The only way to save himself, as it turns out, is to save their meeting, which coincidentally involves saving George McFly from his own cowardice.
The dynamics of the plot don’t entirely withstand careful scrutiny. The key scene where George knocks out Biff and sweeps Lorraine off her feet is problematic. It renders Lorraine uninteresting, a pretty little thing free for the taking to anyone willing to use their fists. (As much as it might help one, despite itself, become a feminist, Back to the Future certainly isn’t especially feminist as regards character development.) Even if we just stick to the movie’s own internal logic, the movie doesn’t explain why, this time around, Biff is suddenly so interested in Lorraine that George has to fight with Biff to win her affections. We don’t get the sense that anything like this happened the first time around; if it had, wouldn’t 1985 George have always been the successful, confident, tennis-playing sci-fi author Marty helps him to become? Does Marty being in the picture in 1955 somehow cast Biff’s attention towards Lorraine? These are unanswered questions; yet, the very fact that they are unanswered, unanswerable, impertinent even, just calls further attention to the fact that the story really isn’t about time travel at all. It’s about Marty coming to terms with the reality of who his parents were and are, and his own life in light of those realities.
From this perspective, Back to the Future explores a vein of storytelling as old as Greek tragedy and the Bible. The idea that the choices and failures of our parents and elders weigh on us, haunt us, weave a destiny for us from which we struggle to escape, is very old, and it is everywhere. It’s hard not to reach a certain age and not relate to characters struggling with that theme. From antiquity to the present day, it has animated any number of successful fictions. Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is only the most famous (even more interesting in light of the Oedipal overtones of Marty’s encounter with teenage Lorraine). Aeschylus’s Oresteia also examines the way in which misdeeds can echo down through the generations and shape the life of children, in this case, Orestes avenging the murder of his father. Shakespeare’s Hamlet examines the struggle to fulfill the commissions laid upon us by our elders, almost as a riposte to Orestes. The Harry Potter series is perhaps the most recent major work to explore that ancient territory. Harry Potter not only has the problematic legacy of his own deceased parents (especially his arrogant, bullying, father, James) to deal with, but also the struggles between them and Severus Snape and, greatest of all, the long struggle with acceptance of death represented, each in their own way, by Dumbledore and Voldemort. (Judging by the epigraph from Aeschylus’s Libation Bearers that adorns Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling’s evocation of this old theme from tragedy is explicit.)
Yet the time-travel aspect of the story of Back to the Future that everyone remembers, and that gives the movie its title, is also probably its greatest weakness. It’s almost as if the movie recoils at the weight of its own theme. After all, not only is Marty’s family depressing and seemingly hopeless, but his mentor, Doc Brown, gets murdered by terrorists. What is he supposed to do about that? Hey, he’s in a time machine! He can go back and fix everything! Which he does, and even better than he dared hope. It’s a grand bit of wish fulfillment. It’s also not particularly psychologically realistic. Compare this element of Back to the Future to the indisputably superior treatment of the same idea in Harry Potter. From early on, Harry is haunted by the legacy of his parents, yet he is cautioned early on by Dumbledore not to waste his life wishing for them back as he stares into the Mirror of Erised. The wizarding world also has time travel (in the form of the Time Turner), but, unlike Doc Brown, the wizards actually stick to their own advice about the dangers of undertaking massive overhauls of the past. (Even Voldemort, apparently, who you would think have had both the power and the will to steal a Time-Turner, go back in time, and kill James and Lily Potter before they even had a son.) Harry deals with the conflicted legacy left to him by his parents and elders (including Dumbledore and Snape) the only way one can—through struggle in the present (and an occasional glimpse at the past in the Pensieve).
In fairness, Marty McFly doesn’t set out to fix his parents. He is, at the beginning, just the typical arrogant teenager, the standard-bearer for the power of Van Halen and Pepsi Free to change the world. (Hope I die before I get old!) We end up rooting for him because, in going back in time, he learns that his parents are people worth knowing, and that in the end he can’t fix his own life without them.